Studying Chess: Over the Board or Over the Internet?

I was trying to decide which games to analyze for this post when I got a great question from a member of our Chess^Summit audience about how to allocate study time given the availability of study materials online. The mother of a young, up-and-coming chess player sent me the following:

“In your experience, did online play help improve you OTB? If you only have maximum two hours a day to study chess, should you play two slow games online or do tactics and positional study? I have one coach who wants [my daughter] to play three games online every day and one coach that says don’t. So I am very confused.”
This question comes after her daughter broke 1900 on tactics trainer and has begun growing skeptical of her growth while playing games online as compared to over the board play. With different coaches now giving her various recommendations, its easy as a parent to get lost in the weeds of chess improvement.
Again, great question, but first congrats on your daughter breaking 1900 on Tactics Trainer! If its any indicator, I was stuck at 1700 through much of middle school, so let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope this is a sign of great things to come!
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I guess it wasn’t that long ago when I too was asking the same questions…
I should probably preface this article by saying that my personal study methods should not be applied universally. However, in writing this, I do hope to provide a roadmap for how players (but more specifically parents) can best find the balance that works for them by explaining how I approach my studies. And to the mother who sent me this question – don’t worry – I’ll include my specific personal recommendations for your daughter at the end of this piece. I think you’ll be surprised what I say there!
My goal with this article is to help explain to non-chess playing parents how I study and why I make those decisions. The question I received is a good one because even though it’s narrow, it opens up a discussion as to when we should study with a board or with a computer. I think to do this effectively, I should take a step back and explain why I use both the board and my computer, and then discuss why it’s important to use both. Once I’ve established that framework, I’ll proceed by answering the questions.

Studying Over the Board

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Working through a Troitsky study in Schenley Plaza

Practice the way you play. My parents didn’t know much about formal chess training when I was younger, but they stuck with this mantra for much of my adolescence. By studying at the board and using a clock, it becomes easy to simulate the environment of tournament chess.

For me, there are two main reasons why I like studying on a board. First, by not studying on my computer, I’ve eliminated the constant distraction: email, Facebook messages, Twitter notifications, sports scores. For the next two hours, I don’t need to worry about the outside world. Living in a moderately sized apartment with two roommates, using a board also means forcing myself to get out of the house and study. Whether its a park, or a coffee shop, or a classroom at Pitt, putting myself in unfamiliar settings to study has its distinct advantages.
For example, I have a desk in my room where I’ll often eat snacks, read the news, catch up on emails, and play bullet chess – not exactly the most productive. This semester, I’ve noticed that when I try to do homework or study chess at this desk, and within 30 minutes I’ll find myself falling into my “normal” desk habits. The brain likes to make these kinds of associations with activities and locations. I’m not a psychology major or anything, but I remember my freshman year psychology professor discussing a study that concluded that sleep insomnia patients should avoid stressful activities in their bed in order to sleep better.
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Studying Aagard and watching the Russian Championships

I’m not sure what scientific studies have been conducted relating productivity and associations we’ve made with various locations, but I think you’re starting to get my point. This is why I enjoy playing casual games at chess clubs, in-person lessons, and most importantly, over the board study.

Secondly, I think there are certain chess skills that need to be developed away from the computer, the most important of which is evaluation. When I’m on chess.com, or using Stockfish, I can turn my brain off with the click of the button. Suddenly because I’m choosing a move that has a +0.21 advantage compared to a +0.15 one, I feel like a genius, yet am blind to the most critical details of the position.
For some of our higher rated readers, let’s imagine we went through Aagard’s Positional Play book on a computer… You would be cheating yourself of one of learning from one of the most instructive positional books for 2000+ rated players! Setting up these positions on the board removes the temptation of knowing all together. Rather than asking about a particular line, we force ourselves to come to our own conclusions, no matter how long it takes. At least if we move pieces on our board, we still need to actually try and make good moves and understand why!
Now you’re probably thinking: hey, only use the engine after I have a solution to each problem! One thing I’ve learned while both training with others and on my own is that our brains loathe effort. I recently read an article where GM Alex Colovic wrote:

“The brain doesn’t want to work, it’s lazy. Forcing it to work is extremely uncomfortable. It tires quickly, having grown out of the habit to calculate on a daily basis.”

And I wholeheartedly agree. When solving tactics, endgame studies, or strategic exercises, its easy to find a move/idea you really like and tell yourself it’s right. You’ll look at a few candidate moves, but you won’t really challenge your idea because you think what you have is sufficient. When you check it with an engine, you got it right – someone gets a gold star!
But in doing this, you’ve really only tested your intuition at a surface level. Great, but in a tournament game, is your thought process going to be the same? Of course not, this is how blunders happen! You know this, so you start calculating, but you haven’t calculated with this kind of intensity that often at home. You’ll take longer, maybe play a few good moves, but ultimately get in time trouble and find a way to blunder later on because of it. Practice the way you play.
Things like deep calculation, endgame studies, positional exercises – these all take time and need to happen without a computer to be fully understood. Don’t worry about cramming a certain number of exercises into a certain time period. Speed comes if you build the muscle, so just focus on accuracy.

Studying on my Computer

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Working through tactics at The Bagel Factory on Carnegie Mellon’s campus

Let’s not get too caught up in the romanticism of studying chess over-the-board. Sure, being able to physically move the pieces and go through the motions of being in a tournament are beneficial, but sometimes its just inconvenient.

If you’re studying openings, its becoming impossible to analyze a position without the assistance of an engine. Nearly everyone who actively studies chess has a “grandmaster repertoire” these days (I find this debatable, but this seems to be the trend), so you absolutely have to know the best moves in your repertoire. With a computer, I can search all of the games played in a position with one click, which I can’t exactly do with a book. As you can imagine, this is extremely helpful!

Beyond all of this, there are tons of instructional mediums online now with deep analysis available: online videos, broadcasts, tactics trainers. I remember after taking an extensive break from chess in middle school, I was overwhelmed by the amount of new online material when I returned… and that was in 2011.

So from a research perspective, I think a computer is mandatory. It’s hard for me to quantify how much time someone should study on the computer based on skill level due to my own limitations as a 2100 rated chess player, but I imagine if we were to construct a representative function, it would be hyperbolic. While a novice player doesn’t need a computer to learn the Four Knights opening, a 1900 rated player would benefit from one to learn how to play against the Marshall Gambit.

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Can you use a board on a bus?

As the mother mentioned in her question, the computer also offers the potential to play games online. Being from Richmond, Virginia, online games were at one point of extreme importance to me. For much of the time since I’ve crossed 1800, I’ve been one of the roughly five strongest players from my hometown, which when discussing opportunities for growth over the board is really bad. Conversely, despite now being over 2100 and in Pittsburgh, I’m not even sure if I’m in the top 15 of Pittsburghers – more opportunities for high quality games, and less of a need to find games online.

I know quite a few people who love playing games online, but there are a couple elements of it that I’m skeptical of. First, I have less patience than in a real game. I can’t get up and look at other games like I might in a tournament, so I have to spend extra energy staying focused and not checking my emails. Because of this, I start wanting to play faster games, and sooner or later, I’m trying to bring my bullet rating back over 2200…

Ignoring all the emails and texts I’ll get during a game, I can’t take my opponent super seriously. Why? I can’t see them – I don’t get the same cues I might get in a real game. Are they playing the game with the same intensity? To further this point, I also feel like players behave differently online than they do in tournament games. Maybe they won’t resign after making an obscene blunder, or maybe you’ll feel more willing to take greater risks without the needed calculation. Lastly, you never have time for the most important parts of the game. And isn’t the endgame the most complex anyways?

So I’ve decided that my online games shouldn’t exceed 15 minutes a side, with the sole purpose of reviewing or trying out openings. Even when I try this, I hardly count it as studying, because I feel the effort I bring to an online game is hardly my best. Just compare my online ratings to my USCF rating, and you’ll recognize one is significantly lower.

Building a Balance

Okay, that was a pretty hefty summary on my thoughts on using a board or computer. But then there’s actual practice. As a college student, I feel like during the semester, my studies are limited to my desktop, but during breaks I have more time to use a board and analyze. Not optimal, but my study habits for now will have to do.

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Flashback to the 2016 US Junior Open in New Orleans

Chess is fun, and its important to study what you find most interesting. But you also can’t afford to neglect parts of your game if you hope to improve, and sometimes you have to do things you don’t like as much.

In my case with online games, when I was preparing for the 2016 US Junior Open, much of my practice at home was through playing online games and analyzing them deeply. Sure, sometimes it felt like pulling teeth, but I knew it was my only option in Richmond to get quality games. It wasn’t a pure substitute for over-the-board games, but at least it was something!

So to answer one of the original questions, if given two hours a day to study chess, I wouldn’t stick to one activity each session. First off, I just want to say, I would do anything for two hours a day of chess now… luckily I only have to wait two more weeks until I’m free for the summer!

But more seriously, given how young your daughter is, developing her ability to calculate and assess positions of extreme importance. If I had to rank tiers of training for U2000 players it could look something like this:

1st Tier: Calculation – Tactics, Pattern Recognition, Endgame Studies

2nd Tier: Intuition – Positional Exercises, Strategic Exercises, Reviewing GM games

3rd Tier: Mechanics – Reviewing opening lines, playing practice games

4th Tier: Preparedness – Cardio, Physical fitness, Psychological training

I’ve deliberately made these tiers vague because I think there can be a lot of overlap between them. That being said, based on my experience, if I were your daughter and only had two hours a day, I’d want to maximize my ability to calculate and develop a strong intuition. These are the kinds of qualities that I think are most important when trying to become an expert level player. Note how the study recommendations for both calculation and intuition have a limited use of engines, if any at all.

Playing online games are helpful in developing these skills as well, but they are less direct. In my opinion, I think there’s only so much you can get out of a game without the help of an engine or a stronger player analyzing it with you. Reviewing games on your own is an important part of growing as a chess player – but, chances are you’ll find better moves based on the knowledge you already have (you can’t see what you don’t know). Rather than using your entire time every day playing games, its much more important to build that foundation by increasing your overall knowledge of chess doing other activities.

Be Your Own Doctor

Finally, to answer the question fully of the mother who’s had to read this article in its entirety while anxiously waiting for a solution. Your daughter has three coaches right now. The two coaches who formally teach her, and herself.
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Working with kids back in 2015

When it comes to training, I think your daughter is her best coach – that’s not to say that she doesn’t need formal chess instruction, but she knows how she likes to study best. That’s not to say that her coaches aren’t giving quality recommendations, its just that your daughter is becoming increasingly aware that there are several ways to reach the same goal. Her coaches should respect her preferences, and suggest alternative training methods to accommodate for them.

If she doesn’t think playing online games is what she needs, then she’s probably right. She’ll definitely need a way to practice what she’s learned (more tournament games, in-person practice matches), but based on what you’ve told me, it really is starting to seem like your daughter has begun to develop a self-awareness that some players take years to recognize when studying (not to mention these skills are great for school too).
I guess as a parent this can be a difficult time to give the best recommendations to your daughter, but don’t worry – this is the fun part! Once your daughter learns how to study independently, she’ll be well on her way on her journey upwards!
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Have a burning question you want to ask our team? Feel free to send it to us at chess.summit@gmail.com, and we’ll give you our best answers!
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